As a part of our new series highlighting inventors and their work, we spoke recently with Dr. Gregory Phelan about his approach to invention, what motivates him to continue to discover new things, and what he envisions for the future of innovation.
Dr. Phelan is an associate professor and chair of the chemistry department at the State University of New York College at Cortland and is part of IV’s Inventor Network. Dr. Phelan’s inventions have made great strides in creating alternatives to potentially harmful BPA-based polymers in food packaging, baby bottles, and other products.
Here are some Dr. Phelan’s reflections:
On the challenges of being an inventor
As a trained scientist, you learn a lot about how to do lab work, how to problem solve, and how to creatively think. But inventors must also have the ability to connect the dots—I can make this material, but how can I get this out to society? Who can help me commercialize this? One of the greatest challenges of being an inventor is finding a way to do it all—to build an idea, but then to find the business partners who can implement that idea in a way that benefits society.
On the value of incremental invention versus disruptive invention
Invention takes many steps and requires a systematic approach. I don’t approach a new problem as though I’m going to invent the wheel. Instead, my vision is more incremental—what can I do differently to make this better? I’m not looking to create inventions that will dwell sometime in the future. I want to do what I can now to help society use the resources at our fingertips to our own benefit.
On the future of invention
I think the future of invention will involve interdisciplinary teams of subject matter and invention experts working on a problem instead of traditional R&D teams sequestered in an isolated laboratory. Crowdsourcing and cooperative problem solving are powerful and engaging tools for innovation. If we can think of best ways to harness that creative energy, we can make very significant and disruptive technologies sooner rather than later.